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Nothing to celebrate: Fourth of July and its role in ignoring Native American history

Clearly, the irony was lost on Donald Trump.

Speaking at the foot of Mount Rushmore about ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’, the President seemed oblivious to the monument’s true history.  Lauding the United States’ ‘revolution in the pursuit of justice, equality, liberty and prosperity’, Trump criticised those who were on a ‘merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes… (and) erase our values’ – apparently unaware of his own contribution to a rather more comprehensive historical silencing.

Arguably, it is in this historical silencing that we find the greatest issue with Fourth of July celebrations. Much like Mount Rushmore, Independence Day places a disproportionate emphasis on a narrative of glory, justice, and equality in US history, choosing to acknowledge far too little of the Native American experience. In praising ‘the courage’ of the ‘56 patriots who… signed the Declaration of Independence’, for example, Trump actively silenced the uglier side of the story. ‘Commemorations’, remarked historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot, ‘sanitise… the messy history lived by the actors’. Fourth of July sanitises the Native American genocide that provided a lesser known backdrop to the institution of the United States of America.

Indeed, while many in the US may associate the virtues of justice, equality, liberty and prosperity with notions of Independence and celebrations of it, for Native Americans, they instead represent a distinctly Euro-American brand of chauvinism – a symbol of white supremacy. Independence Day celebrations whitewash the undesirable facets of history, ignoring the involvement of key revolutionaries including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington in the pursuit of ‘civilising’ the Native American people – a race that the Declaration of Independence refers to as ‘merciless Indian savages’. ‘It’s an injustice’, rails Nick Tilsen, a tribal member and local activist, in reference to Mount Rushmore and the wider ideas it represents, ‘… to actively steal Indigenous people’s land and then carve the white faces of the conquerors who committed genocide’. To do so, he argues, amounts to little more than a ‘structural racism that’s still alive and well in society today’. Independence Day and the commemorations of it place the United States’ ‘whiteness’ at the fore of historical commemoration, whilst simultaneously oppressing the legacy of abominable efforts to ‘normalise’ Native American culture which defined their experience of the road to independence.

Such crude historical silencing is, unfortunately, representative of a more general Western tendency when it comes to considerations of the past – a tendency to often advance false narratives. Consider, for example, how on 12th October every year, Americans celebrate ‘Columbus Day’, a commemoration of the great explorer’s landing in the Americas. Of course, if its atrocities were considered, the event would more accurately be remembered as ‘The Castilian invasion of the Bahamas’. What we see here is a ‘perceived truth’ – built on a fallacy of ‘discovery’. The annual commemoration of this ‘acceptable’ (if not wholly truthful) story is a testament that bolsters its legitimacy. 

The same can be said of Fourth of July celebrations – much like other celebrated episodes in history, it is plagued by a narrative that presents observers a past aligned with their own internal historical dialogue. In focusing on the ideals of freedom and equality, the injustices faced by Native Americans remain repressed, suffocated under the overwhelming weight of this ‘perceived’ reality. Native Americans faced mass persecution. In 1782, US militia massacred 96 Native American men, women and children in the town of Gnadenhatten. If America is to fix its celebrations of Independence Day, acknowledging this more brutal perspective would be an ideal place to start.

Progress has been made in this regard. In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled that the land upon which Mount Rushmore was carved, known to natives as ‘The Six Grandfathers’, had been seized from the Sioux peoples illegally. This represented a concrete recognition of their maltreatment at the hands of a government supposedly the guardians of ‘justice’. Today, the fight for recognition of their land and culture continues – a struggle perhaps best embodied in the recent controversy over the Dakota Access Pipeline. It took a 4-year-long battle to halt the project, a testament to the continued State and Federal disregard for Native American interests. Yet, as the remarks of President Trump on 3rd July indicate, the story of the Sioux remains outside of the general American psyche. How many of those who attended the speech, for example, realised that the native Sioux people are currently building their own shrine to their ancestors nearby, in recognition of their own past, so comprehensively erased from the minds of other Americans? In the same speech, Trump insisted that ‘The radical view of American history’ was a ‘web of lies’, indicating how far the US still has to travel if it is to not only acknowledge the existence of, but take responsibility for, the injustices of its struggle for independence. For what else is a history emphasising the atrocities hidden by the glory of American independence if not radical?

For Fourth of July to move beyond its current whitewashed state, the US must make a greater effort to draw attention to this ‘radical’ historical narrative. Instead of placing stories of ‘glory’ and ‘justice’ front and centre in all commemorations, its leaders could do better. By taking responsibility for a past defined by brutality and oppression, realities so at odds with the American values of liberty and equality, real change could be made. Exhibitions, speeches, and events would provide an ideal basis to begin this long overdue process of coming to terms with history. In a recent interview, the director of United Native Americans, Quanah Parker Brightman, remarked how ‘every inch of this land that we’re on here in North America is actually stained with Indian blood’. It’s about time that the US acknowledged this past that, whilst uncomfortable, is no less important or worthy of recognition.

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